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If Correa leaves, what is the Astros’ plan B?

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All signs point to Carlos Correa departing Houston after the upcoming season, and of the handful of potential replacements, one stands out.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Houston Astros Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Opening Day is a few days away, and the Astros do not appear to be terribly interested in extending their star shortstop. Carlos Correa has made it clear that come this Thursday, there can be no deals. Given his candor, it seems unlikely that the two sides will come to an agreement before then.

Barring any significant developments this week, Correa will be set to exit Houston next winter. While the Astros could re-sign him in free agency, the likelihood that they’ll do so is remote. Given the track record of owner Jim Crane, it’s not his style to bid against other teams for a top free agent.

At this point, it’s probably safe to assume that nothing meaningful will transpire over the next few days, and if when Correa’s de facto deadline expires, it will then be even safer to assume that he will not be wearing an Astros uniform in 2022.

With that in mind, the club will have an enormous hole to fill. Let’s take a look at what options they’ll have.

Internal

The obvious candidate to replace Correa next year has made himself the obvious candidate through his play last winter. Jeremy Peña, one of the Astros’ top prospects, torched the Domincan Winter League during the offseason.

Before this offensive explosion, Peña was already well-regarded and projected to be a plus defender at shortstop with a capable bat. Now, he’s ranked on multiple top 100 lists, and is thought to have a potentially impactful bat to along with his stellar defense.

Peña will play most of the 2021 season at age 23 and is likely to be headed to Double-A Corpus Christi when the minor-league season begins. Should everything go according to plan, a promotion to Triple-A Sugar Land at some point in the summer would be reasonable to expect.

This puts Peña on track to make his big-league debut in 2022.

External

The 2021-2022 free-agent class of shortstops could be one for the ages. As it currently stands, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien and Correa will all be free agents after the 2021 season.

Judging by the Astros’ inane 6-year, $120 million offer to Correa, it’s clear that Crane is not interested in paying top dollar. It’s a notion that’s now a trend, given the higher-ups’ failure to extend starter Gerrit Cole before the 2019 campagin and outfielder George Springer before 2020’s.

All of this indicates the Astros are unlikely to be serious suitors for one of the premier names mentioned above, despite the club due to clear almost $80 million after Correa and starters Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke hit the open market.

The route that’s more likely to be taken is one of intermediacy. Shortstops such as José Iglesias, Andrelton Simmons and Brandon Crawford will also be free agents next winter. Depending on how each of their 2021 season goes, signing one of the three to a one-year contract next offseason could be feasible, with the idea that they’d be keeping the seat warm for Peña.

Another external option is the trade market. This is where the Astros have made their savviest transactions in recent years, but because the farm system is still recovering and the organization will again be without their first- and second-round picks in the 2021 draft, a trade of any substance is unlikely to occur.

Another possibility

Aside from Peña, there is one other other viable internal option for the Astros. It would entail moving third baseman Alex Bregman to shortstop and subsequently acquiring a third baseman, likely via free agency.

(Abraham Toro could make the latter part of that plan obsolete, though it’d require him to get a fair amount of at-bats in 2021 and then make the most out of them.)

As rich as the shortstop market is expected to be, the third base market should be fairly uneven. Assuming Nolan Arenado stays put in St. Louis and does not opt-out after the 2021 season, Kris Bryant is probably the only name that will be worth a damn.

Eduardo Escobar, Matt Carpenter, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Travis Shaw are the only other names who could be suitable options for the Astros, and they’d be borderline at that.

Bryant has a big year ahead of him, and his market prospects depend heavily on how he performs in 2021. Perhaps if he again fails to revert to his All-Star form, the Astros could then be able to sign him for not-too-huge money.

TL;DR version

If the Astros fail to extend Carlos Correa before Opening Day — which looks probable — he’ll be out of the Astros’ reach when he hits free agency next offseason. Top prospect Jeremy Peña is seemingly the heir apparent to Correa at shortstop, and represents every owner’s favorite commodity: a cheap, quality alternative.

Regardless of the amount of money that will be coming off of the team’s books next winter, it’s simply not realistic to expect that the Astros will spend big on one of the star free-agent shortstops.

Ultimately, it appears that all roads lead to Peña. It may not be a straight line to him, but barring any significant change in ownership’s spending philosophy, Peña is primed to be the Astros’ everyday shortstop in the post-Correa era.